Putting Learners at the Centre: Towards a Future Vision for Scottish Education

Report provided to Scottish Ministers by Professor Ken Muir on the replacement of the Scottish Qualifications Authority, reform of Education Scotland and removal of its inspection function.

5. Case for change


Following publication of the OECD report, the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills announced on 22 June 2021 the following actions that would be guided by the central principle that they improve the experiences and outcomes of children and young people in Scotland's education system.

  • SQA would be replaced.
  • Education Scotland would be reformed and the inspection function removed.
  • Consideration would be given to establishing a new, specialist agency responsible for both curriculum and assessment.

The extensive engagement process that I undertook in response to these decisions involved a wide range of learners, teachers, practitioners, parents/carers and stakeholders, including Education Scotland and SQA, over the period September to December 2021. These engagements provided valuable insights into Scottish education and constructive suggestions on how the above reforms might best be taken forward. They also prompted discussion on wider issues, including the cultural and mindset shifts that many felt needed to be addressed as part of wider and longer-term reforms.

An important message arising from the engagements was that there are many positive features of which we should be proud in CfE and Scottish education more generally. The skills and leadership of practitioners and others at different levels and in different sectors in facing the challenges of recent years, were particularly apparent. So too was the resilience shown by many learners whose disrupted experiences, due to the pandemic, has raised serious concerns about their health and wellbeing and that of those who support them.

"I'm pretty sure the government gives the teachers what we need to learn so we don't really get a say."

(Primary school age child)

In the context of CfE, there is clear evidence of some innovative and creative approaches being taken to the curriculum which are meeting the needs of all learners well and which are enhancing and maximising their learning journey. However, it was recognised that such approaches are offered inconsistently resulting in inequity of offer for some learners. Various factors were cited for this, ranging from a perception that the system is driven too much by SQA and its 'high stakes' examinations and overbearing pressures on practitioners and leaders, to variable resource and variable support from Education Scotland and Regional Improvement Collaboratives (RICs) that did not always respond directly and in a timely manner to the professional needs of teachers, practitioners and schools supporting learners.

There was universal acknowledgement that Scottish education has been going through a period of reflection, change and adaption in recent years. Policy areas such as the National Improvement Framework (NIF), the Scottish Attainment Challenge (SAC), and Scotland's Race Equality Framework have helped to give some focus to priorities. However, a consistent theme from many across education sectors was the overload of policy demands, and at times the lack of alignment between them, which many leaders, teachers and practitioners found unmanageable. This has resulted in many headteachers in particular, having their focus diverted away from leading learning and on ensuring high quality learning and teaching to managing an ever increasing level of bureaucracy. These feelings are reported to have been exacerbated by the need to respond to the demands of the Covid pandemic over the past two years.

In spite of this, it was interesting to note the strong desire felt by many that now was an appropriate time to take stock of where we are in Scottish education and consider the wider reforms needed, beyond replacing SQA and reforming Education Scotland, which would ensure a high quality education system for the current and next generation of all learners. Importantly, it was suggested that this should include consideration of the quality and use of statistical data needed to inform, develop, and evaluate policy and practice.

Overall, there was support for replacing SQA and reforming Education Scotland as a consequence of removing inspection from its functions. However, it was generally agreed an important next step was the establishment of a co-constructed and shared vision which would embrace any revised vision for CfE itself. This would also require a cultural and mindset shift and the need for generating a commonly-held paradigm or set of assumptions that are championed and enacted by all who are involved in supporting learners and teachers. Such a paradigm should, first and foremost, place the learner at the centre of all we do, hence the title of this report, Putting Learners at the Centre: Towards a Future Vision for Scottish Education.

Key principles

Taking all of what I have heard and read together, the following are the key principles that I suggest emerge and on which changes to Scottish education should be based. These key principles provide the foundations for my recommendations which I will outline in detail in the proceeding sections. While they recognise and support structural reform involving the replacement of SQA and the reform to Education Scotland as set out by the Cabinet Secretary, that can only be the start. The principles clearly signal the need for significant cultural and mindset change at all levels. This needs to be based around a shared vision signed up to by all stakeholders which gives absolute primacy of focus on individual learners and their diverse needs.

I consider the following principles to be essential if Scottish education is to become a more coherent and self-improving system that is truly successful in meeting the needs and aspirations of all its current and future lifelong learners.

  • All efforts, whether concerned with educational recovery post-pandemic or in terms of the future vision for Scottish education, must be directed to the purposes described in Article 29 of the UNCRC[19].
  • The current generation of learners see climate change as one of the most significant issues facing their futures and, as such, must be recognised as a key driver influencing the future of our education system.
  • Increasing competitiveness across economies and in the labour market re-emphasise the importance of setting high expectations for all young people and creating the conditions for these expectations to be realised. Excellence, equity and steps to close the poverty-related attainment gap remain vital drivers of any education reform.
  • Greater coherence and simplification of the policy and support landscape.
  • A reorientation of resource to provide place-based, responsive, bespoke support for teachers and practitioners supporting the learning of children and young people. Wherever possible, the allocation of resources should support local decision making.
  • An enhanced focus on ensuring high quality learning and teaching and increased collaboration among practitioners, based on the adoption of a continuous learning mindset.
  • Increased recognition of the role and value of early years, including their approaches to learning and teaching and use of outdoor learning, in setting the direction of travel for the lifelong journey of learning by all children.
  • A review of the roles and purposes of assessment, including examinations. Assessment should support progression in young people's learning and ensure that what we value in all learning is truly recognised through, for example, the enhanced use of the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework (SCQF).
  • Reduced levels of bureaucracy with clarity and agreement on what are appropriate forms and levels of accountability to demonstrate the effectiveness of the education system.
  • A redistribution of power, influence, and resource within Scottish education to one that reflects the principles of subsidiarity, genuinely empowers teachers and practitioners and where learners' voices, experiences, perspectives and rights are central to decision making.
  • Recognition and celebration of Scotland as an ethnically diverse society with equal status being given to the voices of those most often unheard, for example, those from different denominations and minority ethnic and Gaelic communities.
  • Trusting relationships between children, young people, teachers and practitioners and increased trust and confidence between local authorities, schools and national bodies.
  • Opportunities for increased collaboration and meaningful engagement between stakeholders, politicians at all levels, local authorities, professional associations, trade unions and the national agencies with responsibility for key aspects of education.
  • Greater resourcing and attention placed on ensuring the needs of individual learners are met, including crucially those with additional support needs as set out in Angela Morgan's report Support for Learning: All our Children and All their Potential (June 2020)[20].
  • The improved collation, sharing and use of data and intelligence to support continuous improvement and the development of a shared understanding of system quality and effectiveness and baselines for evaluating the impact of change.
  • Governance arrangements for national and local bodies should reflect the principles of good public management. In particular, an independent chair and a representative board should provide support and challenge.

Curriculum for Excellence – A renewed vision

It is now almost 20 years since the 'National Debate on Scottish Education' which resulted in the introduction of the CfE in November 2004. Widely regarded as being both innovative and visionary when it was first introduced, CfE set a new paradigm for the educational system in Scotland compared to what had gone before.

"The curriculum limits us on developing our uniqueness, our own talents and abilities."

(Secondary school age learner)

Early CfE documentation stated that the proposed purpose of the curriculum was to ensure that all children and young people developed the four capacities of being 'Successful Learners', 'Confident Individuals', 'Effective Contributors' and 'Responsible Citizens'. Further, that these four capacities should be applied at all stages from pre-school through to the end of secondary schooling and beyond school. The documentation also set out that the curriculum intended to be much more than the sum of the courses and programmes offered in formal classroom settings, and that it should include young people's experience of the school community, their contribution to it and the context of the wider world and the opportunities it offered for wider achievement.

"I mean I guess it feels like school, it's really about just the curriculum and exams and there isn't much outside of the curriculum for me to do. I feel like we're just working towards examinations only. I also feel like the lack of support from teachers and the school on this and the fact I don't think the curriculum is very inclusive feel like a big barrier to me …. There are options, but I just don't think they are very helpful."

(Secondary school age learner)

Since its introduction, practitioners and leaders have worked hard to realise the CfE vision, embed the values, and put into practice its purposes and principles. However, this has not been without its challenges as illustrated by Professor Walter Humes and Professor Mark Priestley who stated:

"A shifting policy discourse (excellence, equity, collaboration, empowerment, attainment, leadership) and the persistence of tensions resulting from accountability mechanisms have made the enactment of CfE challenging for many teachers."

(Humes and Priestley (2021[21])

These challenges, not least brought on by a wide variety of interpretations and understandings of CfE, were particularly apparent in my discussions with leaders, practitioners and wider stakeholders.

Humes' and Priestley's analysis also references the limited opportunities available for teachers and practitioners to engage in professional learning around 'curriculum making' and 'capacity building', and points to, among other things, the wider political, structural and cultural issues and tensions that have created discontinuity between the intentions of CfE and its enactment.

In addition, the OECD notes that,

"the two decades since the formulation of CfE have been marked by accelerated changes, including in educational research, giving rise to new insights into student learning, pedagogy, and the kind of knowledge, skills and attitudes students need to progress as learners. CfE has stood the test of time, but it will only remain relevant if Scotland uses these insights to continue its development."

(OECD, Into the Future, 2021)[22].

While the OECD report naturally focuses mostly on the curriculum, many with whom I have engaged sought to stress the interrelationship between a successful curriculum and high quality learning and teaching to overcome the effects of disadvantage and promoting high achievement.

Upon embarking on this piece of reform work I was mindful of the potential importance that an agreed vision can have in bringing consistency and clarity to the future direction of travel. I was therefore keen to explore further the extent to which the CfE vision still reflects what matters for the education of current and future children and young people. Consequently, the public consultation included questions around the relevance of CfE for the future and looked for suggestions on what should be retained or changed, to improve the equality of opportunity and outcomes for all learners and recognise the wider economic and social claims on the curriculum. What emerged from respondents' returns and the discussions I held with various stakeholders, provides a valuable basis for setting a clear and ambitious vision for CfE and the future of Scottish education.

Views on CfE

In response to questions relating to the vision for CfE in the public consultation exercise Figure 1, just over half (58%) of the respondents agreed or strongly agreed that the existing vision for CfE reflected what matters for the education of children and young people in Scotland. However, of note was that almost one-quarter (24%) disagreed or strongly disagreed.

Figure 1: Levels of Agree (+strongly agree) / Disagree (+strongly disagree) that the vision for CfE reflects what matters for the education of children and young people in Scotland.

There was a range of concerns expressed by those that disagreed that the CfE vision reflects what matters. The most common concerns raised included:

  • Concerns around the extent to which the secondary curriculum in particular had become driven by 'high stakes' examinations leading to a curricular focus on the capacity 'successful learners' within Broad General Education (BGE), including in some upper primary classes, to the detriment of the other three capacities.

"Too much pressure in one exam, one final exam….."

(Secondary school age learner)

  • The need to review what is meant by the capacity 'responsible citizens' to better ensure that all children and young people, including those, for example, with additional support needs, from denominational backgrounds, and from Gaelic and minority ethnic communities, are actively engaged in decisions which affect them.
  • The need for the development of values, attitudes, knowledge and skills to be significantly strengthened in the context of Learning for Sustainability, the bringing together Education for Sustainable Development (ESD), Global Citizenship Education (GC) and Outdoor Learning (OL). This was felt to be particularly important given the increased profile and relevance of climate change to the current and future generations of children and young people.

"We don't do enough about the environment at school."

(Primary school age learner)

"Teach more about climate change."

(Primary school age learner)

  • The lack of acknowledgement of 'digital literacy' within the indicative descriptors associated with the four capacities.

The above points were highlighted most strongly by individual practitioners and those organisations representing practitioners, for example by professional associations and Education Scotland.

Curriculum for Excellence: What should change and what should be retained?

There was a variety of suggestions elicited during my engagement activity and from responses to the public consultation on the question of what should be retained or changed with regard to CfE. Interestingly, a number of respondents questioned the continued use of the term CfE and whether a mindset shift was required to simply view it now as Scotland's curriculum. There was generally agreement with the OECD that CfE is still part of the direction of travel and confirmation that its underpinning philosophy was still sound. However, there was also a clear message that change is needed and the approaches to CfE should be updated.

In terms of what should be retained, the following points were made repeatedly.

  • Increased empowerment and autonomy to schools and practitioners to provide a curriculum that best suits their local context and the needs of all their learners.
  • The importance of promoting the development of skills alongside knowledge and understanding.
  • The increasing focus being given to outdoor learning and to active, play-based, relationship-centred learning in the early years and early primary.
  • The increasing engagement of youth work, CLD, industry and third sector bodies in offering wider curricular and learning opportunities.

Despite overall confidence in CfE, many respondents felt that the following changes were needed to bring CfE to where it needs to be for the future.

  • Greater structure and clarity on what should be taught across disciplines to improve consistency.
  • Improved focus and clarity in guidance documents on key requirements and reduced use of 'jargon'.
  • Greater focus and support on curriculum learning and teaching and on how CfE's four capacities can provide progression from BGE into the Senior Phase.
  • Improved guidance and exemplars on how BGE in secondary schools and the transition to the Senior Phase can be managed to the benefit of all learners.
  • A continuing focus on literacy and numeracy in primary schools but with greater recognition of the importance of health and wellbeing and the contribution made by all areas of the formal and informal curriculum and interdisciplinary learning.
  • Greater clarity on the roles of assessment, standardised testing, the use of professional judgement and the place and nature of examinations.
  • Clearer metrics around those capacities beyond a narrow interpretation of successful learners.
  • A wider range of alternative pathways and opportunities for learners making subject choices and entering the Senior Phase.
  • Greater recognition of prior learning and acknowledgement of the value of wider achievements, especially by the tertiary sector, beyond the traditional academic qualifications.
  • A wider range of quality learning and teaching materials produced centrally to reduce workload on teachers and practitioners.

Changes beyond CfE

Children and young people who engaged in discussion with adult facilitators and those who responded to the online survey were not asked specifically about what should be retained or changed in CfE. However, the extensive responses contained in the report produced by the Children's Parliament, the Scottish Youth Parliament, and Together (Scottish Alliance for Children's Rights) give a clear indication of what is working well for them and some of the wider areas in which they see change being needed. Often the areas of change they cited related to assessment and SQA's examinations. Their responses and views on the topical issues of testing, assessment and examinations, such as the example below, will undoubtedly be helpful to consider as part of the planned review of NQs to be led by Professor Louise Hayward[23].

"I would prefer more continuous assessment from my teachers because I get more opportunities to improve and see how good I am. Let's say I have a bad day and I don't do well with the continuous tests, I will get a chance to improve and do better."

(Secondary school age learner)

The case for wider change was particularly apparent in some of the comments and responses made by learners on their personal experiences of the Scottish education system. For example, in responding to the online survey, only half (51%) of secondary school learners and a majority of primary school children were in agreement that their education meets their needs as a learner. Furthermore, and worryingly, only one in three secondary school learners who responded to the survey agreed that they are having the best possible education experience while just over half (56%) were of the view that their education helps them to develop their personality, talents and abilities to their fullest potential. Less than half of 12 to 18-year-olds responding to the survey agreed that they are involved in making decisions about their learning or that their views about their education are taken seriously.

While some learners showed great enthusiasm and clearly enjoyed their educational experience, this was not the case for all learners. The following experiences and quotes from learners further illustrate this variation in learner experience. They signal the importance of listening carefully and acting on the voice of learners in establishing a vision for the future. They also call into question the culture that exists in some classrooms and schools.

On the positive side:

"We talk to teachers about our learning, we get to do feedback on ourselves and others. We sometimes get a choice."

"We are always learning new things. Learning is fun in our school. Every day is a school day – we learn something new every day!"

"I really like my teachers. My teacher likes to challenge me. My teacher tells funny jokes."

(Primary school age learners)

However, on the negative side:

One learner spoke about the 'toxic culture that existed' within her school. Another when responding to how well their school prepares them to develop respect for others said.

"We get taught about how to appreciate Scotland and a lot about things in a Christian way, but I am Muslim, not Christian. I don't get taught anything about my culture and neither does anyone in my school, …. the teacher usually puts it on me to educate other people which is not fair, and it makes me feel even more like I am not included."

(Secondary school age learner)

"You [teachers] need to be more aware of when you are shouting. Children can do just fine without you being annoyed at them."

(Primary school age learner)

"There is a mental war going on now. Adults don't hear about children's mental health."

(Primary school age learner)

"Lack of understanding of dyslexia means you can't keep up with class, so are always lagging behind. I feel teachers didn't take the time to help people that had fallen behind for difference reasons. I feel at college everyone is at the same level and given the support to catch up. The education system restricts what you can do."

(Secondary school age learner)

"We were told we have to stay outside even during the cold. We are kicked out of toilets during breaks and lunch and can't go during class. Sometimes teachers don't let people with a toilet pass go to the toilet."

(Secondary school age learner)

"I feel like being in college now I do have a lot to say around my education because colleges are more open and prepared and willing to listen to what you have to say, but I don't think I felt that way when I was in school."

(College student)

In one of my meetings with a group of young people I was particularly concerned with the consensual view expressed that the last two years of SQA assessments had been "an absolute nightmare." Those same young people went on to state that "it just isn't fair that hard working students have been treated like this." These sentiments were reflected in almost all meetings held with young people, many of whom also felt that SQA and the examination system were in need of "major overhaul." When pressed on what that "overhaul" might comprise, there was general consensus around the need to find better ways of recognising and valuing wider achievements, beyond academic qualifications. It was also felt that there should be greater use of digital technology in examinations and assessment, something many teachers and leaders supported, particularly in the context of SQA's administrative processes. I acknowledge that SQA's planned programme on digital transformation was disrupted due to the pandemic.

Looking at the most recent available literature and commentaries on Scottish education I found further support for a discussion on a revised vision and wider reform to Scottish education, not least in the context of the UNCRC. For example, the Goodison Group report Schooling, Education and Learning 2030 and Beyond (March 2020)[24] set out some of the potential drivers of change in Scottish education.

"There are also likely to be ongoing challenges to existing power structures and demands for more transparent and devolved democratic systems, particularly from networked social movements. Greater empowerment is likely to come for some groups, especially children through the adoption into Scots law of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child."

(Goodison Group, March 2020 report).

In the Goodison Group's 2021 report[25], based on two online sessions which asked participants to take a step back from dealing with the day-to-day challenges and consider the future, a strong case was made for change by placing the needs of children and young people at the centre of any future education system in Scotland.

"We still have some way to go to progress towards a truly humanised education system. However, we have the opportunity with the incorporation of the UNCRC to influence system change that is consistent and sustainable. It is not saying every school must be the same, like a fast food franchise, but that what the children and young people will experience consistently and sustainably is respect, kindness, trust and respect for their human dignity in whatever environment they are in. Let us engage people in this conversation, explain what it means, and encourage them to try some of this for themselves."

(Goodison Group, March 2021 report)

In his article From hierarchies to networks: Possibilities and pitfalls for educational reform of the middle tier, Professor Christopher Chapman of the Robert Owen Centre[26] notes that:

"…in Scotland, the direction of recent education policy has been away from a hierarchical culture in which central and local government dictates the frameworks and details of educational development towards an egalitarian one, in which government sets overall direction but leaves implementation to regional and local actors. The emerging ethos within the Scottish education is therefore very supportive of the "self-managed organization" and the language of the self-improving system."

With all of this in mind, I recommend that the Scottish Government should initiate a national discussion on establishing a compelling and consensual vision for the future of Scottish

education that takes account of the points made in this report, in particular the importance of placing the learner at the centre of all decisions and the basis that Article 29[27] of the UNCRC offers us in terms of the purposes of education. Further information on the UNCRC can be found in Appendix F.

The vision for CfE should be considered as part of this discussion. Invitations to shape this narrative should be made to all partners and stakeholders, including learners, practitioners and parents/carers. It will be important to ensure that 'narrative privilege' is accorded to all who have an interest and not just key educational bodies, with opportunities for all to debate and challenge emerging suggestions.

Recommendation 1: The Scottish Government should initiate a national discussion on establishing a compelling and consensual vision for the future of Scottish education that takes account of the points made in this report, in particular the importance of placing the learner at the centre of all decisions. The vision for Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) should be considered as part of this discussion as should consideration of how the education system seeks to address the purposes described in Article 29 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC).

Recommendation 2: Invitations to shape this vision should be made to all partners and stakeholders, including all learners, teachers, practitioners, parents and carers. It will be important to ensure that 'narrative privilege' is accorded to all who have an interest and not just key educational bodies, with opportunities for all to debate and challenge emerging suggestions.



Back to top